The Battle of Pleime
General Hieu did not wait until he became a tactical commander to start to
make use of the Tandem Infantry Armor Formula. He did it when he was still the
2nd Corps Chief of Staff, under the command of Brigadier General Vinh Loc, when
he played a major role in the design and execution of sending a Task Force
relief column to rescue Special Forces camp Pleime in October 1965.
The Special Forces camp Pleime was an
outpost located in a remote area about 20 miles east of the Cambodian border, 10
miles west of highway QL-14, and 10 miles south of Pleiku. This camp was
garrisoned by a combined American-Vietnamese-Montagnard Special Forces
contingency composed of the twelve-man Operations Detachment A-127, fourteen
LLDB troops, and 415 Jarai, Rhade, and Bahnar tribal CIDG (Civilian Irregular
Defense Group) soldiers.
Before October 1965, this outpost played an insignificant role and operated
independently according to the model of Special Forces units. However, it
suddenly gained a visible and important status when intelligence officers
discovered the Dong Xuan (Winter-Spring) Campaign plan designed by NVA General
Vo Nguyen Giap. The objective of this Dong
Xuan Campaign was to cut South Vietnam into two pieces and had three phases:
1. conquer camp Pleime; 2. conquer Pleiku; 3. conquer Qui Nhon. General Vo
Nguyen Giap intended to use 3 NVA divisions for that purpose. NVA General Chu
Huy Man was entrusted the use of a divisional force composed of three Regiments,
the 32nd, the 33rd, and the 66th to achieve phase 1, conquer the Special Forces
General Chu Huy Man's Tay Nguyen (Western Highland) plan was as follows: 1.
the NVA 33rd Regiment encircles Pleime outpost to force ARVN 2nd Corps to
dispatch a relief column from Pleiku; 2. the NVA 32nd Regiment ambushes the
relief column (which would be an easy prey without the fire-power support of
nearby artillery base-camps); 3. after the relief column is annihilated, the NVA
32nd Regiment reverts to joint force with the NVA 33rd Regiment in the running
over camp Pleime; 4. meanwhile, with the weakening of Pleiku's defense lines due
to the dispatch of the relief column, the NVA 66th Regiment attacks the 2nd
Corps Headquarters, awaiting the NVA 32nd and 33rd Regiments which will join
forces after taking over camp Pleime to impart the coup de grace to Pleiku, and
thus achieving phase 2 of Dong Xuan Campaign.
The 2nd Corps Command realized that the 2nd Corps would not be able to
sustain an all-out Viet Cong attack of such magnitude. The 2nd Corps faced a
dilemma: 1. rescue camp Pleime and the relief column will be
annihilated, then camp Pleime and Pleiku will fall one after the other; 2.
abandon camp Pleime to itself, the 2nd Corps will suffer an enormous damaging
psychological shock that will demoralize the entire nation, and will delay only
momentarily the capitulation of Pleiku. The ARVN Joint General Staff approached
the USAF in Saigon. General Westmoreland decided to send in the newly arrived US
1st Cavalry Division to reinforce the ARVN 2nd Corps. General Harry Kinnard
immediately chose An Khe, situated midway on highway QL-19 between Pleiku and
Qui Nhon, to be his divisional Headquarters' location.
The 2nd Corps Command laid out the following plan to the US 1st Cavalry
Division: 1. a relief column will be sent down South from Pleiku to rescue camp
Pleime; 2. in the meantime, a combined American-Vietnamese Special Forces
contingency will be dropped to bolster the defense of camp Pleime until the
arrival of the relief column; 3. US 1st Cavalry Division will reinforce the
depleted defense forces of Pleiku by sending in one of its Regimental troops; 4.
and will also helilift its artillery batteries into reachable positions to lend
support to the relief column whenever needed.
operation scenario of camp Pleime unfolded as follows:
On the morning of October 19, 1965, the camp sent out a large combat patrol
of eighty-five CIDG strikers commanded by two American leaders sweeping the area
to the northwest. The camp was protected by five eight-man ambush teams and two
regularly posted twenty-man outposts.
At nightfall on October 19, an advancing NVA infantry column slipped past
one of the ambush positions and attacked the southern outpost, which was overrun
after 20 minutes of resistance.
At midnight on
October 19, NVA troops attacked the camp itself with sappers and
explosive-filled pipe sections. The camp defenders responded with heavy machine
guns. Both sides tossed hand grenades at each other.
At 3:43 a.m. on October 20, jets bombarded the camp vicinities with firing
At 6:00 a.m. on October 20, NVA troops attacked the northern outpost. CDIC
tribesmen had to resort to hand to hand combat to repulse the invasion.
At 7:30 a.m., a flight of medevac helicopters arrived, escorted by several
gunships. They discharged a surgeon and picked up wounded soldiers. Suddenly one
of the hovering helicopters was hit and spiraled into the jungle. A Special
Forces team immediately scrambled to its rescue but was stopped by an NVA
machine-gun nest. During this attack, one American Special Forces sergeant was
mortally wounded. By contrast, the larger combat sweep patrol that went out the
previous day was able to walk back through the gates without incident.
At midday on October 20, Special Forces Major Charlie A. Beckwith, commander
of Project DELTA, reinforced by two companies of the special 91st ARVN Airborne
Ranger Battalion, received the order to reinforce the camp. This rescue party was
ready at Pleiku airfield at 5:00 p.m on the same day.
At 5:20 p.m., a 1.200 man Task Force, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen
Trong Luat, consisting of the 3rd ARVN Armored Cavalry Regiment with 6 M41 tanks
and M113 armored vehicles, a Squadron of M8 armored carriers transporting food,
ammunition and fuel, two towed 105 mm howitzers, an engineer platoon, the 1st
Battalion of the 42nd ARVN Regiment, and the 21st and 22nd ARVN Ranger
Battalions left Pleiku and proceeded cautiously down highway QL-14
heading south toward camp Pleime. In the meantime, Lieutenant General Stanley
Larsen, Commanding General of 1st Field Force, helilifted a battalion of the US
1st Cavalry into Pleiku.
Due to lack of helicopter lift, Major Beckwith units were only helilifted on
the morning of October 21, by a series of three flights and dropped off in the
thick forest four and a half miles outside Pleime. They wandered in the forest
and by mid-afternoon, they ran into a three-man NVA recoilless rifle crew and had
to turn deeper into the forest. By 5:00 p.m., they were only thirty-five minutes
from Pleime. As night fell, they settled down and prepared to enter camp the
At 1:40 a.m on October 22, a Skyraider A-1E airplane was shot down while
flying over camp Pleime. The pilot jumped out but then was only found two days
later. Another aircraft was also shot, but this time the pilot was rescued
In the early morning of October 22, after a brief engagement, units of Major
Beckwith was able to enter camp Pleime, and Major Beckwith took over the command
of the camp.
At 1:00 p.m., a three company force slipped out of the camp to clear a
nearby hill. It encountered a heavy machine gun nest that killed Special Forces
Captain Thomas Pusser and twelve indigenous soldiers and wounded scores more.
The rest of the composite clearing force retreated.
On the same day of October 22, the 91st ARVN Airborne Rangers attempted to
destroy two machine-gun positions, but they failed in both accounts.
On October 23, at 2:00 p.m., the 22nd Ranger Battalion was helilifted to a
landing zone 2 kilometers and a half to the South of the suspected ambush site
established by the 32nd NVA Regiment to form a blocking force so that the enemy
was caught between them and the relief Task Force.
On the evening of October 23, around 6:00 p.m., the Task Force relief column
reached kilometer 4 of Provincial Route 6C, some five miles from Pleime, it
entered the ambush site set up by the NVA 32nd Regiment commanded by NVA
Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Huu An. At that time, the Task Force relief column was
divided into two sectional columns: the first column comprised the M41 light
tanks and the M113 armored vehicles; the second column comprised the tracked
armored vehicles M-8 protected by two Rangers Companies. The NVA 635th Battalion
attacked the first column and the NVA 344th Battalion threatened the second
column. Under the cover of F-100 jets and helicopter gunships which delivered
concentrations of rockets and cannon fire, along with napalm, on mortar and
recoilless rifle positions, the M41 light tanks and the M113 armored vehicles
immediately deployed into fighting positions to deliver heavy volume of 76 mm
cannon machine-gun fire, inflicting heavy casualties to the enemy. After two
hours of ferocious fighting, the enemy broke contact.
The second column with weaker firepowers, was overwhelmed by a
concentration of recoiless rifles, 90 mm rockets and mortar delivered by the
NVA 344th Battalion. Fortunately, F-100 jets airstrikes were able to broke the
back of the assault by the NVA 344th Battalion and drew it back south along
Provincial Route 6C.
At 3:00 a.m. on October 24, the NVA 966th reserved Battalion launched an
attack against the Task Force relief column with three company-size prongs. Once
again, the Task Force relief column responded strongly and inflicted heavy
casualties ton the enemy, which was forced to break contact.
At the daybreak of October 24, a review of the situation showed that the first
column had not lost any armored vehicles. However, the second column had
sustained heavy damage. Two M-8 armored cars, two five-ton ammo trucks, and two
gas tankers were destroyed; one M-8, two five-ton trucks, one bulldozer, two
three-quarter trucks, and two 105 mm howitzers were heavily damaged.
On the night of October 23, Lieutenant General Larsen finished unloading
one Cavalry Regiment to protect Pleiku.
Early the next morning, on October 24, helicopters placed
artillery batteries in positions to support the relief column.
On the afternoon of October 24, after being resupplied by Pleiku, the relief
Task Force entered another ambush which turned out to be fiercer than the one
sustained the previous day. This time around the Task Force was bogged down. A
divisional artillery control team was sent on one of the medevac helicopters to
the stranded convoy. The forward observers scrambled into the lead vehicles, and
the advance resumed behind a rolling curtain of massed artillery fire.
On the morning of October 25, a commando squad, led by two Special Forces
flamethrower sergeants, charged light machine guns surrounding the camp.
On the evening of October 25, the relief Task Force arrived in the camp,
ending the siege of camp Pleime.
At this point, the role played by the ARVN 2nd Corps was over, but since
General Westmoreland wanted the US 1st Cavalry to keep on searching and
destroying the rest of the 32nd and 33rd NVA Regiments which were slipping back
to Cambodia, Colonel Hieu continued to cooperate closely with the US 1st Cavalry
Division General Staff and to personally assist General Kinnard, the US 1st
Cavalry Commanding General, because of his excellent command of English. The
bloody Ia Drang Valley battle occurred by the middle of November 1965. Following
that battle, the 2nd Corps requested the help of an ARVN Airborne Regiment
commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Ngo Quang Truong, assisted by an American
Advisor who would later become famous going by the name of Major Norman Schwarzkopf, to be helilifted into Duc Co areas to harass the retreating NVA
During all the time of camp Pleime's siege, Colonel Hieu stayed up all night
long, operating a communication station in the Special Forces camp Duc Co to
coordinate the rescue operation. He preferred to use the high-performance
communication equipment of the American Special Forces to the low performance of
the 2nd Corps communication equipment, to communicate effectively in English
with all the American Commanders involved in this battle. As a result, the
combined Vietnamese-American operation between units in camp Pleime, units of
DELTA and ARVN Airborne Ranger, units of USAF and VNAF, units of relief Task
Force, units of artillery support, units of US 1st Cavalry Regiment protecting
Pleiku, unfolded smoothly as planned.
Few people were aware of Colonel Hieu's contribution in this successful
operation, the general public only learned through the media that after this
battle Brigadier General Vinh Loc was named the Hero of Pleime and was promoted
to the rank of Major General. General Vinh Loc was so proud of this military
feat that he called the 2nd Corps Headquarters and the personal C-47 plane of the
2nd Corps Commanding General, Pleime.
During the four-day siege, there were 300 air-strike sorties conducted
against the NVA 33rd Regiment, which besieged camp Pleime. C-123 Air Force cargo
airplanes and Army CV2 Caribou transport airplanes parachuted 333,000 pounds
(from which only 9,000 pounds landed outside the wires) of food, first aid
supply, ammunition, and water.
The enemy suffered heavy losses. The NVA 33rd Regiment which besieged the
camp was down to one company of effectives. The NVA 32nd Regiment, which set up
the ambushes, lost 40 percent of its officers and men, including 2 of 3 Battalion
Commanders killed and the third one wounded, and 18 12.7mm anti-aircraft machine
guns and 11 mortars.
Because fighters of the ARVN 2nd Corps and the US 1st Cavalry Division
succeeded in crushing the Dong Xuan campaign at its phase 1, General Vo Nguyen
Giap had to abandon his intention of slicing South Vietnam in the middle in
1965-1966, and so the Viet Cong had a bitter Winter taste of defeat
without the benefit of a sweet Spring taste of victory!
Nguyen Van Tin
27 July 1999.
Updated on 09.08.1999
- Books, Articles
* Pleiku, the Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam, J.D. Coleman, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1988.
* We Were Soldiers Once… and Young, General Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, Random House, New York, 1992.
* "First Strike at River Drang", Military History, Oct 1984, pp 44-52, Per. Interview with H.W.O Kinnard, 1st Cavalry Division Commanding General, Cochran, Alexander S.
* The Siege of Pleime, Project CHECO Report, 24 February 1966, HQ PACAF, Tactical Evaluation Center.
* Silver Bayonet, Project CHECO Report, 26 February 1966, HQ PACAF, Tactical Evaluation Center.
- Viet Cong